I’m no Einstein

Poor Albert Einstein. At the ripe old age of 26, he published several theories that redirected the field of physics and set it on a new course. His approach was groundbreaking and considered brilliant. Even to this day, people still pay homage to his intelligence. Many people assumed his mathematical and theoretical brilliance would be transferable to all areas of life. They asked his opinion on every subject imaginable and he gave it. In some areas, he was quirky. In others, he was mistaken. And in some, he was insightful enough. But in most regards, Albert’s life in general, his opinions and his personal behavioral choices, fell well within the range of ‘normal’. He was very human. Living up to one’s own reputation can be a burden. Albert was not frequently described, in any account of him that I’ve read, as happy.

Still, it must have been hard to become the standard against which all other human intelligences would be measured. I never met the man but I’ve been compared with him many times in my life. Not once favorably, by the way. But I never took offense at this, any more than I would have taken offense at someone pointing out to me that I was no Michelangelo in my sketch book or no Bernstein in my musical abilities or Baryshnikov on the dance floor. I have never tried to be like somebody else. It seemed like a full time job simply trying to be myself…even attempting to discover whatever that might mean took a long time.

I mention all of this because we live in a culture and a time that has placed a great deal of emphasis upon comparing things and people. We may not know what the absolute value of anything might be (the absolute truth about anything or if something is absolutely beautiful to all people for all time or if this is the absolutely best piece of pizza ever) but we are definitely sure that this is more truthful than that, or that this looks more beautiful than that, or that this one tastes way better than that one. This is where Albert comes in again. We’ve become marginally accustomed to the theory of relativity and practice it now with regards to truth, beauty and pizza quality. In fact, we practice it almost constantly. There’s a whole spectrum of valuations we make in our lives that are ‘relative’, i.e. how we perceive things will depend upon whether we’re riding on the train or standing on the train station platform. (I pray you’re familiar with that example as it has been used so often to illustrate Einstein’s theory).

I want to tell you that comparisons themselves ultimately have no value. We will never grow towards happiness or fulfillment if we are constantly judging ourselves against someone or something else. Even when we are comparing our current self with the version of ourselves from a previous point in time, it serves no real purpose. We’re no longer in that place in time and awareness. We are here. As I attempt to judge or evaluate myself in relation to others, I will always be in one of two categories…better than or not as good as. The relativity of both these categories negates the usefulness of either.

So I would encourage you to trust that your honesty will always steer you towards truth, to appreciate whatever beauty it is you see in front of you, and to relish pizza in all its glorious versions.

My deepest understanding is that we are all created equals.

When I am constantly comparing, I lose sight of that truth quickly. And I suffer.

 

 

 

 

We deserve to do better

Historians generally agree that one of the chief complaints the fledgling revolutionaries in the Colonies called America had against the British was centered around the concept of “No taxation without Representation”. This may or may not have been a smoke screen for other issues. History is, after all, written by the victors and subsequently edited by the status quo. Regardless, the principle that a populace shouldn’t have to pay for things or policies that they had no real say or input about, seemed to stick and to legitimize the revolt in the general public’s understanding.

Not so far back in time, in the Presidential campaign of 2008 actually, each candidate promised ‘change’. The Republican nominee, John McCain, even went so far as to state that “Washington was broken”.

The status of our system of representative government was ‘broken’.

He was not being dramatic. He was speaking from his experience. Mr. McCain, a veteran Senator of 26 plus years in Washington, DC, spoke the honest truth. It’s a truth that had been whispered and long suspected but never spoken out loud from a public platform by a Presidential Candidate, except as rhetoric. The reasons for this ‘brokenness’ hardly matter any more. What matters is that the ‘brokenness’ is systemic, that it is pervasive and fiercely resists all attempts at remedy.

We have all watched, during the years since 2008, our government’s dysfunction become only more flagrant and frequent. It has been painful. It has been impossible to ignore.

Since the processes of ‘representative government are broken’, then one of the direct conclusions we must confront is that we, the people, are being ‘taxed without Representation’.

Whatever it is that is actually happening in Washington, DC does not represent what we have elected people to do. We have been trying to elect people who will make this better and we are constantly seeing people there that simply make things worse.

And we, the people, are now realizing that we have no recourse via the electoral process, no way to correct the problem, because the election process itself has been compromised by powerful special interest groups, campaign spending laws, and the lack of term limits. (to mention only a few of the issues stifling reform).

And so it is that the very conditions which gave rise to actionable discontent are present again. The Declaration of Independence states that the remedy, our civic ‘right’, is to throw off that government which no longer serves the best interests of the people. The justification is spelled out in our country’s founding charter.

Let me be absolutely clear: I do not advocate in any way or under any circumstance the use of violence as a means to bring about the changes we recognize that are needed. 

We, ourselves, are part of the problem. Our government is not an external force. Our government is not a ‘they’. It’s an ‘us’. We, the people, have abdicated responsible citizenry and have allowed these circumstances to develop and flourish. We didn’t do this wholesale. We did this piecemeal, a little bit here…a tiny bit there. Truthfully, our generation inherited many of the systemic disorders. We were taught them from childhood, indoctrinated and desensitized into accepting as ‘normal’ the general workings of the ‘democratic republic’. We were misled.

I will repeat: Our system of representative government is broken. It has been broken for quite some time. There has been a gradual erosion of our accountability in our civic responsibilities, a numbing and dumbing down, to the point where we can’t even pretend to ourselves that its working. It has crumbled over the generations through countless acts of expediency, of practical minded persons fudging their principles, of ambitious people playing on our fears…to get themselves elected…and once in office, of continuing those behaviors to stay there.

We, the people, would do well to take a hard look at ourselves. The 2016 candidates emerging from our system reflect a broken system, not a broken people.

We deserve to do better.

 

I know I’m not perfect but…

Somewhere between absolutely right and completely wrong is where we meet the reality of ourselves every day. It’s where we experience life and, in that sense, it’s where we live. The two extremes are mental and emotional fictions. One we desire, the other we dread. And it’s not always the same one. We can dread being right and desire to be wrong just as easily as the reverse.

When I state that both are fictions, that neither extreme actually exists or is possible, I say it in the same manner that True North as navigational point also doesn’t exist. Apart from local factors that can influence our compass point or directional instruments, the magnetic field of our planet itself fluctuates. True North is an abstract. As explorers will testify, having an indication of North as an orientation point is extremely useful. Without such an orientation, venturing into the unknown would only be an exercise in becoming lost. But that’s all True North (or even North) is. An orientation, not a destination.

Perfection is another fiction. I’ve asked many people to complete the thought/sentence that is the title of this blog. Here’s how every single person (thus far) has done it: “I know I’m not perfect but…I would like to be”. Now, there have been some small variations in the exact wording…’but I try to be’, ‘but I should be’, ‘but I want to be’…but the essence of the answer is the same. Perfection is the goal. Perfection is what most of us are aiming for. Being ‘absolutely right’ would be perfect.

And, actually, we’re all aiming for something that doesn’t exist. It’s easy to understand why we keep missing it.

Wanting to learn, wanting to improve, wanting to grow and develop…these are understandable and, for the most part, healthy.

However, we are not perfect. Ever. There is no such thing.

We are all works in progress. That is as perfect as it ever needs to be. We are our happiest when we are growing. Nothing is ever truly finished. Our misery and suffering begin at the precise moment we stop wanting to learn…when we think we know…when we’re ‘absolutely right’. That’s when the pain, the realization of something we overlooked, misunderstood, or never saw coming, reveals itself. Time after time after time.

The voice that drives our search for perfection is a tyrant. It is a loud voice, ripe with restless dissatisfaction. There is greed in that voice, as well as egotistical pride. When we are driven by this voice there can be no quiet appreciation, no enjoyment of the moment and no savoring of the incremental progress being made. Anything less than perfection is flawed, worthless junk.

And that’s how we come to see ourselves. Flawed. Worthless. Junk.

This is one of the most crippling voices I have ever encountered in myself. And one of the most damaging voices I deal with in others

Initially, as I struggled to not listen to the voice that demanded perfection, I felt as if I had abandoned my most noble quest, my highest calling, and settled for the mediocre.

These feelings were all a part of my delusion.

I have discovered that I do not have to be perfect in order to be loved. I do not have to be right in order to be valued and respected. I do not have to know something completely in order to be able to contribute to the conversation.

My remaining open to learning and willing to keep trying is so perfectly human, so totally lovable, that I almost missed it…

…as the voice of perfection urged me to chase the mirage.

Whose Voice is that anyway?

It’s no secret nor that unusual that many of us have a voice (or several) chattering constantly inside our heads. Sometimes it’s a play by play announcer, sometimes it’s providing color commentary, other times it can be more like point/counterpoint. The voice slips in and out of these various roles seamlessly. What the voice rarely does, however, is shut up.

We’ve all hit the mute button during Wimbledon, or the Ryders Cup Tournament, or even the Super Bowl in order to silence the inane blabbering and simply witness the sport. Have you ever wondered if there was a way to silence the voice(s) between your ears?

Well, there is. But that’s not the subject of this blog.

This voice appears and then develops as we initially attempt to process much of the raw material (sensations and situations) from the world in front of us into our opinions and feelings. We’re all so young when this is occurring that we believe that the voice(s) IS us. After all, it is with us constantly…relentlessly wondering, speculating, calculating, debating, pouting, crying…processing, processing, processing…buffering, buffering, buffering. This voice, if it isn’t US, is presumed to be our friend.

The torrent of data that life presents us with (and this stream of consciousness that races to keep up) is overwhelming. For all of us. There’s simply no way to make sense of it all, not enough time or energy to follow every thought through or react to every feeling. So from very early on in our life we quickly become more and more selective. The voice(s) begins to pick and choose which thoughts or feelings to focus on. All else is ignored. The voice always draws our attention towards what it’s familiar with, what it thinks it knows. Somehow, this feels safe and secure. Comfortable. And this becomes our pattern for life. This is what is considered ‘normal’.

If a barking dog once really frightened us, it’s probable we’ll always scan for dogs, barking or not. If the neighborhood bully had red hair and freckles, it’s likely we’ll have to resist the impulse to shy away from those with similar features. If a girl named Kate or a boy named Paul broke our hearts in high school, we’re probably going to be reluctant to trust the next person with that name.

The presumption is that the voice(s) in our head is trying to look out for us. It’s hard to even imagine but….that might not be true.

How many times have you heard someone say that they’re their own worst critic? Or that no one is as hard on them as they are on themselves? It’s a fairly common refrain. It would seem that one of the roles the voice(s) favors is the voice that tears us down and holds us back. The voice that detracts and doubts and finds fault with everything…even a legit accomplishment.

That doesn’t seem particularly friendly.

We hardly need protection from an honest effort and a genuinely good experience.

But the voice(s) will still find something to warn us about.

We might want to consider that the voice is not keeping us safe so much as it is holding us back from growth and joy.

So, whose voice is it anyway?

 

 

Game Show Mind Set

I must apologize to any of those readers from countries other than the United States. This blog in particular may be difficult to connect with your own experiences. It will, however, provide you with an insider’s view of our culture…thin sliced.

I grew up during the earliest stages of television as a communication media and, like television itself, couldn’t really tell the difference between good TV and bad TV in the beginning.(Apparently, TV execs still can’t tell the difference, but I sure have learned how to) All TV was interesting, i.e. good, because it was TV. Anything was better than chores, homework or listening to your parents.

One successful program format from the very start was the ‘game show’. Ordinary people competed for prizes under a variety of rules and conditions. Most of the formats involved contests like solving a simple riddle, naming a song, filling in a blank to complete a sentence or form a word and so on. There was usually a buzzer or bell of some sort and the object was for the contestant to be the first to buzz (or ring) with the correct answer.

This format was not unlike the classrooms I was being taught in. There were many times when the teacher(s) would ask a question addressed to the class as a whole and the ones who thought they knew the answer would shoot their arms straight up (first if possible). Being the first to raise your hand didn’t guarantee that you would be called on to answer (unfair, I know) but it did always count for something. You could see it in the teacher’s eyes.

So, as a result of my classroom conditioning and TV viewing, I developed what I refer to as my buzzer brain. Here’s what that meant to me internally: whenever the situation in front of me posed a question or needed to be figured out, my brain went into game show mode. I wanted to be the first to answer, the quickest to figure out what was actually happening and to hit that imaginary buzzer. I honestly (but unspokenly) felt that there would be a prize or reward of some sort for being so good at this game called life. If nothing else, I would be declared a winner after all the points I had racked up. And being a winner, in America, was always the goal. The point. At least that’s what I was told.

So, mentally, my life became a trivial pursuit.

I hoarded tons of useless information in the same way as my Depression Era grandparents hoarded scraps of wood, loose screws, random nails, nuts/bolts/washers, pieces of tin foil, burnt out light bulbs, broken toilet seats and so on and so on… Their rationale was a refrain: “You never know when it might come in handy”.

That became my first mantra. (long before I knew what a mantra was)

This buzzer brain, this game show mentally, would have fizzled out on its own eventually, except that I seemed to have an aptitude for it. In other words, not all of my answers were wrong. In fact, the percentages of my correct answers were sufficient that I was encouraged to keep hitting the buzzer. Encouraged by other people no less, who kept asking me questions. Not necessarily important questions but my brain didn’t make any distinction in categories…questions were still questions…answers were answers…points were points…

And besides, all I really wanted was to hit the buzzer.

stay tuned

 

 

 

 

The Smile Reflex

There’s something about this experience called life that makes taking ourselves too seriously impossible.

We smile as a reflex response. It’s no different than our eye blinking when an object suddenly comes close, or our leg jerking when the doctor taps it with the rubber mallet, or our flinching at a loud noise nearby. Reflex responses. We can smile at something that just crossed our minds, at the sight of someone who walked through the door, at the soft play of candlelight on our lover’s face, at a child chasing a puppy…and so much more. There’s no need to think about smiling before we do it. In fact, the common way to refer to these instances is to say that ‘we caught ourselves smiling’. We realized we were smiling after we had smiled.

These are moments of appreciation…unscripted…unedited…uncensored…undeniable. They occur frequently and randomly everyday and everywhere. That’s part of their charm. And we smile. And, if we’re paying attention, we notice that we smiled.

A coworker brings you a cup of coffee made just right without you asking, there’s a tap on your shoulder and a stranger hands you the phone you had unknowingly left on the counter, a friend you’ve been wondering about happens to send you an email with a goofy picture that captures what you’ve always liked about them, the repair person tells you that everything is still covered under warranty, the song in the elevator reminds you of that time in Jamaica.

None of these moments can be planned or predicted. They simply show up. This is so obvious that it could be a bumper sticker:

The unexpected. It’s not what you saw coming.

Here’s what’s not so obvious: we love these moments. We feel most alive in those few seconds…before our brains kick in…before we cover up emotionally and guard ourselves again. We love surprises. We enjoy the non ordinary, the break in the routine, and the opportunity to improvise. We smile during these moments and we smile when we remember them. We tell stories about them. We enjoy them at a level that our thinking doesn’t understand. That our thinking won’t allow.

I’ve delved into this in greater detail in my book but the essence is: life itself is a risky business. When we strive to take the risk out of life, we take the life out of ourselves. We deaden ourselves with caution and control, with being rational at the exclusion of all else, with being consistent at the expense of being creative.

There’s a line from a song, “I want to live, not merely survive.”

In the moment of a reflex smile, we feel alive.

Awakening to ourselves can begin with these. We would do well to linger and not rush by those feelings, to savor them, to explore them without explaining them, to pay attention to what it was that we felt. It’s in those moments that we can discover who we truly are.

And smile.

 

 

 

 

 

No Laughing Matter, the Ending

When we last left our couple, they were coming up on their three year anniversary. They had ‘settled in’ to their life together, which meant that none of the emptiness was talked about and none of the tension broke the surface of their day to day interactions. They were adept at stepping around the gaping holes in their relationship. It was a congenial adaptation of the  ‘don’t ask/don’t tell’ approach to problems. Friends and family thought they were happy. They thought they were happy. Neither had expected that the honeymoon would last forever and so both, in their own ways, had been right. They’d gotten what they had expected, what they thought was a normal marriage. Consequently, they did the next expected and normal thing. They decided to have a child.

It is, indeed, normal to expect that having a child would fill in some of the gaps between them that they both felt and wouldn’t address. They would have a new common purpose, a process and an event that they could focus upon. It felt like a purpose. It felt like a renewed sense of meaning. It felt like closeness. It was also all within the range of what was to be expected. And when the child was born, they completely expected that this new life, this ongoing shared focus, would naturally keep them, as a couple, close together. They were completely shocked when that’s not what actually happened.

(Oh, the child was loved and cared for, dear reader. That’s not the story I’m telling… although that story is common enough as well.)

What I would like to draw your attention to is the intricate interactions between the expectational waves. When neither of them knew exactly what they expected, they both did what they thought others would expect them to do. Or what they imagined others expected them to do. Few, if any, of the expectations were based in an awareness of self or in the reality of their situation. As I’ve pointed out, any and every person can be generating wave after wave of expectation in any and every situation they’re in. In case you’ve forgotten or this is the only blog you’ve read, here’s a quick refresher:

We can go into a public restroom expecting there to be toilet paper.(there may or may not be). We can dine out without expecting to be sickened or poisoned by the experience. (fast food being the exception). We can be waiting for a bus, subway, taxi or limo and expect that it will be somewhat on time, that the operator won’t be drunk and that our safety won’t be an issue.(all normal expectations that have nothing to do with the reality of what then actually happens).

The last parenthetical statement is key. Expectations do not alter the reality of a person or a situation. Expectations alter our perceptions of that person and that situation. Our expectations warp reality, bend and distort reality, without our really noticing.

Two people waiting for a flight in an airport can have distinctly different perceptions of the reality that there has been a delay. One can bluster, fret and suffer. The other can accept, read and relax. Same flight, same amount of delay, same arrival time at the other end. That’s the reality. What each of them experienced, however, were worlds apart.

With the birth of their first child, our now not so youngish couple’s marriage became even less of the joining or union of two lives and more of those two lives operating in parallel. There was a physical proximity, additional responsibilities and a new life between them. But this didn’t bring them closer together as people. It simply kept them together longer.

That’s the ending most of us experience.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Sigh.

But what did you expect?